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Health advocates: Marple's firing 'a tremendous loss'

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Children's health advocates are reacting with worry and dismay to last week's firing of West Virginia Superintendent of Schools Jorea Marple, calling it "a tremendous loss" and "a travesty."

"I'm heartsick," said Renate Pore, founder of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Families Coalition. "She was absolutely leading us in the right direction for children.

"She understood more than any superintendent I have seen that active, well-nourished children learn more effectively and do better academically," she said.

Pore cited Marple's efforts to make school meals more nutritious, inject more physical activity into the school day, lower the teenage pregnancy and dropout rates, and stop bullying. "We're very worried about what will happen to those initiatives," she said.

"I'm stunned," said Kelli Caseman, director of the West Virginia School-Based Health Assembly. "I don't understand this at all.

"Since Dr. Marple took office, there has been a major surge in school-based health centers opening in the counties," she said.

Between 1994 and 2011, she said, only about five health centers opened each year. In the 1 1/2 years of Marple's tenure, 17 centers opened, and eight others are in planning. "That is directly related to her leadership," Caseman said.

The centers are financed by health organizations, she said, "so it's a great deal for the schools. I'm very much afraid we'll lose momentum now."

Healthy-schools policies "are in the state's longterm economic interest," said Delegate Don Perdue, D-Wayne, chairman of the House Health and Human Resources Committee.

"One in four of our fifth-graders is now at risk of diabetes," Perdue said. "Dr. Marple correctly identified that as a threat to future state budgets."

"Her initiatives gave us reason to hope we might get a handle on obesity and diabetes," said Perry Bryant, director of West Virginians for Affordable Health Care. "If children can develop healthy habits now, they'll save the health system a lot as adults."

Marple received criticism as well as praise for her advocacy of healthy lifestyles, Perdue said. "You had people raising hell about her lowering the calories of school meals and making them more nutritious. It took a lot of nerve to take the necessary steps, but she clearly has lots of that."

"I have never had such support from a superintendent," Office of Child Nutrition director Rick Goff told the Gazette in August. Under Marple, the OCN trained cooks in 27 counties in healthy cooking techniques. They trained others in turn.

Thirty-five counties now serve free breakfast in a federal program that brings money into most counties. Absenteeism went down in those counties after the breakfast program was instituted, according to DOE statistics.

DOE employees referred all questions to DOE spokesoman Liza Cordeiro. "This is a sensitive time," Cordeiro said, "so all press inquiries must come through our office."

In earlier interviews, DOE employees praised Marple.

"All our programs have blossomed since she came," Goff told the Gazette in August. Last year, school systems bought more than $100,000 in fresh foods from West Virginia farmers. Every eligible county system is now signed up for the federal Fresh Fruit and Vegetable program.

Marple insisted that the DOE cooperate with other agencies, Caseman said. "The cooperative spirit spread, so we've gotten many more people to the table to maximize children's health efforts."

The Bureau of Public Health's Chuck Thayer said he too was "stunned" by the news of Marple's firing. Marple significantly expanded a children's-health partnership between the BPH and Department of Education, he said.

"The DHHR now directs about $1 million toward that partnership," he said. "We fund regional wellness coordinators in the schools to help develop wellness activities, anti-smoking activities, that kind of thing.

"We very much want the Office of Healthy Schools to be sustained. And we're worried about that."

A major part of OHS federal funding will run out in February. Marple told the Gazette in October that she was committed to finding ways to keep the office in operation.

Under Marple, the Office of Healthy Schools stopped telling the Legislature that five-day-a-week physical education is too expensive and began advocating daily physical activity instead.

The OHS has been negotiating with Playworks, a national program that helps schools create five day-a-week physical activity programs, OHS physical activity coordinator Mary Weikle told the Gazette last summer.

"What's going to happen to all that?" asked Jenny Phillips, who resigned from the school board last Thursday in protest.

"If Dr. Marple had been doing a bad job, I could understand wanting to change," she said. "But her evaluations were excellent. In every aspect of what's needed in a child's life, from academics to health, she has been there."

She said the unannounced, dismissive way Marple's firing was handled was "horrible" and "a travesty."

Caseman is worried about the upcoming legislative session. "This close to the session, how do we prepare, to make sure important children's health programs don't get cut?" she said. "Those of us who advocate for children's health don't have a lot of money for lobbyists. With Dr. Marple, we could count on the Department of Education. Now we may have to circle our wagons."

Reach Kate Long at katelong@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1798.

 


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